The Feb. 15 vote by workers at Boeing’s South Carolina Dreamliner plant against being represented by the Machinists union was portrayed in the press as another case of workers saying, “Union, No!”
That’s not the whole story. Before the vote, Boeing saturated the airwaves with hype designed to scare their employees into rejecting unionization. Workers were hit with intimidation at forced plant meetings, propaganda in break rooms, even televised threats from the governor.
Such is life in “Right-to-Work” South Carolina, where 1.6 percent of workers are unionized — the lowest proportion in the country.
Right to Work, or more accurately, “No Rights at Work,” or “open shop” laws, ban agency shops, where unions collect dues or agency fees from all workers they represent. Meanwhile, management remains free to bully workers to get many of them to opt out, straining union finances. The deep pockets that corporations use to wage war against unions further stack the deck.
In the U.S. South, where these laws rule, workers are saddled with low wages and poverty. With weak unions, communities suffer from less services and poor schools.
Race to the bottom. Now these laws are gaining traction in former union strongholds. The National Right to Work Committee, right-wing State Policy Networks, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and assorted wealthy union busters run the steamroller. Most are bankrolled by billionaires and foundations, often tied to racist, immigrant bashing groups such as the John Birch Society. Recent losses include Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky and Missouri. Twenty-eight states are now “No Rights at Work.”
Emboldened reactionaries in Congress have introduced H.R. 785, a national version of Right to Work. All 15 sponsors are rich: business owners, lawyers, ranchers, bankers, or professional politicians.
The U.S. Supreme Court landed heavily on the bosses’ side with the 2014 Harris v. Quinn ruling, and outlawed the mandatory payment of union dues for home-healthcare and childcare providers. After voting to unionize, these low-paid workers saw their right to a strong union yanked away. Since Quinn, pro-business groups have targeted them for “opt-out” campaigns, especially in isolated locales.
Grassroots ground war. On the West Coast, the misnamed “Freedom Foundation” is a major anti-union player. This winter several of its right-wing allies in the Washington State Legislature sponsored right-to-work bills.
Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity, (OWLS), a grassroots, and multi-racial labor group, advocates a militant response, one aimed at “driving the Freedom Foundation into the sea.” OWLS’ Points of Solidarity calls for independent political action and revival of the strike as “labor’s most potent weapon.” Its membership includes Freedom Socialist Party members who helped found OWLS, rank-and-file unionists, Wobblies, and independent radicals. Its practices are a model for labor democracy and its orientation to low paid workers drives its mission of “reviving labor’s fighting spirit.” Early on it organized support for undocumented immigrants.
Now OWLS is exposing the anti-Freedom Foundation and arming the broader community against its reactionary agenda. OWLS has helped pack Washington State court and legislative hearings, organized pickets, and used media and workshops to blow the whistle on the Foundation. OWLS now gets calls from labor councils and unions seeking help in confronting anti-labor attacks in counties where unions are small. To get involved email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the Organized Workers Facebook page.
Indeed, spirited confrontations at the grassroots level are taking place across the country. A famous example is Wisconsin, where workers occupied the state capitol in 2011 to stop Governor Scott Walker’s attacks on public-sector workers. Support poured in from all over the world as sentiment built for a general strike. But timid union officials diverted this energy into a recall campaign of Walker, and backed a moderate Democrat instead. The strategy failed, Walker moved quickly against public employee unions and membership nosedived. Wisconsin became Right to Work in 2015.
Workers are NOT rolling over. New Hampshire just repelled an anti-labor bill. Skirmishes in Ohio and other states are unfolding, as is stepped up pro-labor education. This kind of intensified union activity is crucial in the coming months. Some unions are stepping up their organizing.
In a historic first, workers at Florida-based Telemundo, the largest Spanish-language network in the U.S. voted 4 to 1 to unionize.
Racist roots. Learning the racist, anti-communist roots of right-to-work laws is important to defeating them today. In the 1930s the north was rapidly unionizing through industry-wide strikes and the U.S. south was up for grabs. The Congress of Industrial Organizations launched Operation Dixie in 1946 to unionize there. Tremendous strides were made in textile and meatpacking. But the CIO backed down to pressure from the conservative, segregationist American Federation of Labor and efforts to unionize the South were doomed. Big business politicians of both major parties were quick to exploit racist and anti-radical sentiments of union tops, securing open-shop laws in 11 states, mostly in the south between 1944 and 1947. Passage of the union busting Taft-Hartley Act gave these laws teeth. In the 1960s, organized labor missed another opportunity with its half-hearted response to pleas for support from Civil Rights Movement leaders like Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin.
A fight far from over. Labor’s losses can be reversed if unions apply the lessons of history, reach out to the community, embrace solidarity with the most disenfranchised workers and utilize bold tactics. Appeals to capitalist politicians will not do the trick.
Labor strongholds can be launching pads for organizing the millions of workers who want a union. The revival of union democracy, bottom-up organizing, and strikes are essential ingredients to any campaign. Getting a true labor party off the ground, to champion the needs of the working class in the electoral arena, could be a real game-changer.
The situation is urgent. Organized labor faces dangerous times. But powerful movements have shown in the past that things can change when workers decide to take their fate into their own hands.
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